Can you have too many portable pump organs?
For Ben Knox Miller and the Providence-based roots band The Low Anthem, the answer is no. “We use Craigslist,” Miller says. “Every time we go on tour, and we’re going to a city and maybe have a day off, we check to see if they have any portable pump organs. That’s the instrument that we’re most obsessed with.”
Miller and his bandmates are audiophiles of an antiquarian stripe. They profess a deep respect for old music, and say their own music is indebted to ghosts of Americana such as Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, and Gram Parsons, as well as living legends like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and The Beach Boys. But The Low Anthem doesn’t just prefer old musicians; they prefer old instruments. Last time they came through town, they were toting 25 instruments in their van, outnumbering the band members 6 to 1.
The Low Anthem, whose three founding members met at Brown University, are not so much songwriters as chemists. “You’re playing a song, and you start to hear certain timbres that you want to accompany it, and then you look for whatever instrument can make that timbre,” says Miller. “That’s how we came on to these odd instruments, it wasn’t because we found an odd instrument and said ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we used this?’ It was because we heard this mellow horn sound, and we thought was a French horn but it wasn’t quite a French horn, then we thought maybe it was a fugal horn and it wasn’t quite a fugal horn, and then when we found the flat horn it was the flat horn all along.”
The sound that has emerged from this methodology is somewhat schizophrenic. The first track of its breakout album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, is a sparse, dreamlike song cooed in falsetto. Elsewhere on the album, the songs stomp and Miller barks a convincing Tom Waits impression.
But eclecticism seems to be working for The Low Anthem. Britain’s Uncut magazine named Oh My God, Charlie Darwin one of last year’s top albums. The band’s stock is rising here at home, too. Case in point: last November, the band was opening at the Black Cat; tomorrow, they’re headlining a show at the 9:30 Club. Also, they’re playing a free show at the Kennedy Center earlier in the day. Tickets for both are still available.
THE LOW ANTHEM, THE KENNEDY CENTER’S MILLENIUM STAGE, THURSDAY, 6 P.M., FREE… and THE LOW ANTHEM W/ VANDAVEER, 9:30 CLUB, THURSDAY, 9 P.M., $15
After the jump: More excerpts from an interview I did with Miller and bandmate Jeff Prystowsky last time they were in D.C., in November.
On the current album:
Miller: “We came up with the album title, ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin,’ before all the songs. We thought it was very funny. We were wandering around the zoo, and thinking about all the different animals, and we thought, Wouldn’t that be funny if we put it out?’—It’d probably get banned in Kansas public schools and launch us into counterculture stardom. It didn’t work out that way. It’s too pretty. There are a couple church choirs that are actually singing ‘Charlie Darwin’… But after we came up with that record title, different themes, different songs, everything started to zero in a little bit, and we realized there was a lot of obsession with survival of the fittest, and the death of the week, and the contingency of all of our values on Right morality. We’re very interested in the idea of how Christian values have survived and battled against other political values and religious values—and interested in looking at the church as this organism, with its reproductive arm of the missionaries going out and spreading its seed… We all read East of Eden while we were making it. Which didn’t have anything to do directly with what the record was about, but it kind of put us in the same story and the same headspace.”
On the upcoming album:
Miller: “We’ve had all these songs for such a long time now. The last record we started on New Year’s Day 2008. So that’s coming on two years now, and the songs were even older than that. So it’s basically been three years of songwriting that’s been repressed—we haven’t been able to put something out ’cause we’ve kept getting offered tours and have this can’t-say-no problem… Yeah, there will be some different things about it. There are certain parts of it that play with different kinds of humor that were absent from the last record, which was pretty weighty… When Jeff writes in his natural state—he’s been writing a lot of songs—he writes these hilarious, simple country songs. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to bring them into the fold with the other songs, ’cause you just laugh. We’re starting to figure it out… You’re worried that it’s going to undermine the other stuff you want to do, to just throw disparate things together. But we think we’re on to a way to do it.
On their propensity for hoarding antique instruments:
Miller: “It’s easier to talk about it in the negative—like, talk about how bad a new casio keyboard sounds and say, well, of course use the pump organ. Or to listen to a new pop production that’s done with auto-synchronization. We don’t use click tracks or anything, we just try to let the music breathe and be natural.”
Prystowsky: “Like, the upright bass, sometimes there’s a slap that happens when you hit the strings, and people are like ‘Oh no, it should be completely clean.’ We don’t mind little scrapes and scratches and things that happen naturally when you’re trying to emote something. That feels more honest and real to us.”
Miller: “If it’s survived that long, then it must be good.”